I first became aware of the word “favela” when I was 12 or 13 – we watched a video in geography class about São Paulo. I don’t remember much about the video itself, but the word stuck in my head and 20 (ish) years later I find myself living right next to one.
Favelas are one of the most prickly subjects in Brazil. Get into a conversation about favelas with a middle class Brazilian and there is a good chance that you will find yourself in trouble before long. I once mentioned to a friend of a friend that Vidigal looked beautiful at night. He responded “Favelas are ugly. You think it is romantic to live without proper sanitation?”.
Some Brazilians are convinced that most people living in favelas are drug dealers or thieves. One of my ex-Portuguese teachers once told me “They’re not all thieves. But you should not go in. You will be robbed.” She went on to say that she had never been inside a favela herself and never would because they are “too dangerous”. What followed was a very strange conversation in which we ended up having a Pygmalion-style argument about whether people are born bad or are simply influenced by their environment.
Favela Tours and the influence of foreigners
Favela tours always seemed like a positive thing to me. If done well they bring money into local businesses and help people from the outside to better understand what favela life is really like (including dispelling fears based on ignorance – see previous paragraph). But not everyone likes them – I once heard someone say “I hate those favela tours. The tourists think they’re going to the zoo, but these are people, not animals.”
And on the relatively recent surge of foreigners living in favelas, there are several complaints you hear: 1) Gringos come to live in a favela for a week or two so they can have a story to tell their friends when they get home. 2) Now that they’re safe, foreigners are coming in and pushing up the prices which is pushing out the original residents. 3) Living in a favela legitimises it, these are illegal settlements that the government should abolish.
I do think that some of these points have validity, but I can’t help feeling that you can’t win sometimes – whatever you say or do in favelas, someone seems to have a problem with it.
The fact of the matter is that favelas are a source of shame for many Brazilians and that is why it is such a sensitive topic. These communities are a constant reminder of the fact that the state effectively abandoned a large section of society for many years. For many people, favelas also have a strong association with crime and lack of state control – clearly not things that anyone would want associated with their country. I can see that it must be very frustrating to have tourists show up and think these places are exciting or somehow fun. But at the same time, I think it is natural that visitors are fascinated by these unconventional communities.
The problem with favelas
Favelas have a lot of serious problems - crime, lack of infrastructure, education, public health – these are not idyllic communities.
So favelas have many problems – but does that mean they are 100% bad? I don’t think so. Even during the limited time I’ve spent in Rio, I’ve met many fine and talented people who were born and raised in favelas – I’ve eaten in great restaurants and had many positive interactions. Like many poor communities, favelas have a strong sense of community and are culturally rich (even if not everyone, including me, appreciates every aspect of that culture!).
So, are there reasons to be cautiously optimistic with regard to the future of favelas? I’ve heard people dismiss the success of the UPPs (Rio’s pacified favelas) as being a temporary change that will fall apart after the World Cup and Olympic games. It’s true that there are just 28 UPPs out of Rio’s 500-800 favelas, (estimates vary), but I think they do offer a model that is working. If the state can continue to take control of, and responsibility for, these troubled communities, then perhaps they can cease to be such a prickly subject in future.
What do you think of favelas? If you’ve been into one, how did it go?
Note: The accepted/politically correct term for favelas is comunidade. For the sake of not distracting from the subject, I stuck with favelas today but will be covering this issue of nomenclature soon. Apologies if repeated use of the F-word offended anyone!